A Call from Charlottesville

Way back in 1893, the great Swami Vivekananda, an unknown monk from India, traveled to Chicago to participate in the Parliament of the World’s Religions, part of the Great Chicago World’s Fair, or “Columbian Exposition.”

After days of boring speeches in academic style, the Swami’s first five words led the entire audience to stand and give an ovation. What were those words?

“Sisters and Brothers of America!”

Instead of focusing on differences, the Swami greeted all who could hear him with words showing our ultimate connections. In fact, the Christian organizers of this event had pretty well been thinking that after all the “heathen” participants had been able to present their talks, the entire world was going to “see the light” and convert to Christianity. Instead, the Swami’s talk is practically the only one that is remembered today. And instead, the Swami ended up spending a lot of time in America, teaching the “wonderful doctrines” (a phrase from his speech) of Hinduism to eager Americans.

Of most interest and relevance today, are three sentences toward the end of the talk.

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often in human blood, destroyed civilizations, and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now.

Swamiji closed his talk with the following, equally uplifting words:

“I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism, all persecutions with the sword or with the pen, and of all uncharitable feelings between persons wending their way to the same goal.

Please see the following link for the entire text of his speech.

http://www.ramakrishna.org/chcgfull.htm

Perhaps equally important to us today, is the end of the Swami’s closing talk.

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart, and point out to him that upon the banner of every religion will soon be written in spite of resistance: “Help and not fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”

I ask, when are the religious leaders of the world going to step up to the plate and do their part to make Swami Vivekananda’s hope a reality?

When are we going to demand that all of our leaders, religious and secular, renounce bigotry all all levels?

When are our leaders going to fan the warming flames of tolerance, if not universal acceptance, with the same fervor that some currently use to oxygenate antagonism to the point of mutual destruction?

When, at the very least is the United States of America going to stop giving tax exempt status to organizations that teach their pre-logical children that their fellow citizens are going to hell for calling the Divine by the wrong name?

When?

 

All She Wanted

All she wanted was for people to be a little nicer to each other. In her youth, she had been more naive, and then all she wanted was for people to be nice to each other. But now, she had discernment, and realized that was way to much to ask. So nicER. Just a little bit nicER.

She had spent decades wishing for understanding. Understanding for the sake of itself. At that early part of her life, she had perhaps been confused into wanting understanding due to a misplaced belief in the inevitability of beneficial consequences flowing from understanding. She hadn’t encountered David Levy’s book, so she did not know that sometimes, to understand is to change, but often, simply to understand a situation results in no practical change at all.

As time marched on, she got what she wanted. She gained more and more understanding of human nature. Eventually, she understood that there are lots of excellent reasons that most people want money or love much more strongly than they want understanding. Her father wanted money. He told her so. He also told her that it was clear to him that he would never understand people, but he could understand money. Her mother wanted justice. That interfered a little with her father’s accumulation of money, but that is life. We are all conflicted. Because whatever most of us want to sustain our bodies in comfort, most people also want to climb the stairway to heaven.

She had a colleague. A friend. He will remain nameless for the purpose of this article. His actions (the organizations he supported with this time and energy) say he wants the Protestant Christian vision. He spends some significant part of his time hanging out with financial planners, claiming he is working to help the poor to get their piece of the pie. As far as she saw it, investing in the stock market would do nothing to bring the Kingdom of Heaven.

She knows that it is a mistake to believe that the fantasy of financial stability  can ever be a foundation of social justice. Those who believe this clearly don’t even bother to flesh out the meaning of social justice, or realize that social justice is both the original and ultimate, and effectively,  only real type of justice. The concept of social justice is one of the ideas that the symbol of the blindfolded lady is intended to demonstrate. Justice has to close her eyes to the particulars of the case,  and consider the whole picture, which only becomes visible in the metaphorical darkness (freedom from distraction). To quote Billy Joel, it can only be seen by the eyes of the blind. In other words, at least in Western Civilization, we don’t believe in cutting off the hand that stole food to feed the hungry.

She knew that there was more to justice than punishing a book crime. She knew that the judge was supposed to be able to see into the heart and mind of the accused, and weigh the needs of the accused against the resources of the society.

Hunger in a land of plenty is a sin. Hunger in the land of scarcity may be as benign as a sad fact.

She knew, she understood, that her colleague with the misplaced focus on money was a mirror, sent by God to remind her of who she was, by virtue of what she wanted and what she knew. What she didn’t know was why others couldn’t understand that we can never escape the consequences of the wants of others. We can ignore them, at least for a time, but never escape. She knew that wants drive thoughts, and then action.

She knew that thoughtful thoughts have a greater chance to eventually drive elevating action and hasty or superficial thoughts drive actions with higher probabilities of negative unintended consequences.

She sometimes allowed herself to feel depressed by her colleague’s belief that social time spent with part time financial planners who were funding an orphanage in India was the most effective step he could take on the stairway to heaven. But she was usually able to treat the depressive thoughts by reminding herself of the teachings of The Great Merwegon (a fictional wise woman).

For over twenty years, she had devoted herself to cultivating clarity, and to teaching any others who were open to it, to doing the same. She knew that the basest wants are the strongest wants in most, which opened her to criticism for empowering people to hurt themselves and others, as they experimented with the cultivation of clarity.

She ever hopefully opened her mind to arguments that there was a more direct path toward increasing humans’ tendency to being nicer, but, to date, no convincing ones had been offered. With the possible exception of the book highlighted in this link. Instead, she was accused of manipulation, and even brainwashing, by her own father, no less. She would have felt that as a greater burden had she not already worked through the flawed thinking of a past accuser.

To her, that was the saddest thing. That people couldn’t distinguish someone teaching self-empowerment from someone seeking power over them. For now, she rededicated herself to cultivating clarity and teaching the teachable.

 

Crapulence

One of my new acquaintances sent me a list of things entitled *Did You Know These Things Had Names?* The message arrived just as I was taking over for our writing group leader who could not make it that day. For the record, I’m generally fourth in command in that group. There are three other people who are equally or more capable and willing, personality wise, and have more experience in leading writing groups than I do. So that day the three of them were out. Crapulence stood out to me as a good word for a prompt.

DEFINITION:  That utterly sick feeling you get after eating or drinking too much is called crapulence.

Here’s what I wrote:

To live is to be bruised. As Rumi, via Coleman Barks and John Moyne said, “Aren’t we all hazy with smoke?” This is the single-most effective, concise, succinct bit of wisdom ever generated. It’s a description of the human condition. Understanding this fact, in its depth and breadth, is the path to liberation from resentment, desire for revenge, and all the evil spirits that plague humanity. If you indulge in opulence and experience crapulence, you are unlikely to be able to see the fact that we are all hazy with smoke, as your vision will be cloudy, and you won’t be able to distinguish the cloud from the haze. At least not at first.

It is said that the Buddha had his phase of opulence, but he eventually grew dissatisfied with the result, crapulent, or perhaps not, before finding a path to the clear vision that must precede understanding, which must precede liberation from fear, doubt, and trouble of any kind.

Trump: A Man of Integrity?

What does it mean to be a person of integrity?

Many people think that a person of integrity is one who is honest and truthful, doesn’t steal, cheat or lie. But this is not the real definition of integrity. Integrity means whole.

I recently saw a quote to the effect that the person’s words, actions, thoughts, were consistent. I agree with this definition.  Sometimes I find a person of integrity to be a jerk, but that’s simply my opinion of the person, which I arrived at using my own moral and ethical standards.

I was having a discussion with someone and said that by this definition, Donald Trump is a man of integrity. He is who he is. He is not deep or thoughtful, but according to New Yorker staff writer David Owen, who was speaking with Terry Gross on the NPR program Fresh Air, on April 13 (the anniversary of the Titanic disaster), Trump behaved the same way when Owen met him for an interview for Golf Digest, as he behaves now, as president. Terry Gross asked:

How did the man that you golfed with compare with the president you’re watching on TV?

And Owen answered “Very much the same.” You can find the exchange in the transcript of the interview, about half way down, at the link above.

I don’t know if Owen is right, but at least he has spent time with the President. I have not. So I have to leave the possibility open that Trump is who he says he is. That is what  a lot of people who voted for him said they wanted.

That does not mean I like his value system. In the end, most of us feel friendlier toward people with whom we share the top levels of our value hierarchies.

Hiring a Saint

“I took the liberty,” Dharmendra said, “of asking a saint to come with us.” I must have looked a little confused. “A saint?” I asked. “Yes, he’s a saint. I asked him to come so he can do a ritual for your mom.”

We were on our way to a thousand year old temple in the Kumaun  (click for some maps), a division of the State of Uttarakhand, on the Indian side of the borders of Tibet and Nepal. I had already traveled twice to the Kumaun, and always found myself wishing I used some type of prescription tranquilizer as the taxi travels along the narrow roads, along the edges of nearly vertical mountain slopes. Dharmendra has been my guide all three times. We’ve never actually gone to the peaks of any of the tallest Himalayan mountains. Only the foothills. But the views are fantastic.

During the last trip to India, in 2008, which was a birthday gift from my parents, my mother, who was born in West Virginia, and could not wait to move away to a big city, but who always loved mountains, turned to me at one point, and said “I see why you wanted to come back.”

My mother was quite an impressive woman. She passed the CPA exam in 1956, and the Maryland and DC bars in 1967. There were not very many women lawyers at that time. In any case, she certainly impressed Dharmendra on that trip. He informed me that MAYBE my mother was as good as packing suitcases as he was. But he seemed to acknowledge that she was going to get what she thought was her due, and he learned some skills in that vein from her. I had gotten the news that she had fallen, and was unlikely to survive, a few days before I was to leave Chennai and head to north India, for the “vacation” part of my trip to the sub-continent. There was nothing I could do for my mother at that point, by going home right away. So I continued my trip, with modifications in case I had to cut the trip short, which I did.

An Indian engineering colleague had a question for me at the time I was planning the 2008 trip. “Is it wise to use Dharmendra’s services? Is he accredited by the Government of India?” I said no, but I couldn’t let myself worry. Dharmendra’s tour guide service is no ordinary tour guide service.

Dharmendra is going to give his clients an experience to remember. It’s never mediocre. Apparently, as I found out on this trip, it includes the services of a saint to pray for your mother’s soul, should the need arise. Dharmendra arranged for me to do what he would have done had it been his own mother near death.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda, I found out the next day, really is considered a saint.

Swami Shivachaitanyananda at Shangrila Resort, holding a children’s book in English, that someone had left behind. The Swami doesn’t read English.

After spending twenty years in a cave, he decided to rejoin society. He loves to talk. Making up for lost time, he’s extremely cheerful and active for 70. He is a self appointed concrete inspector. If he sees the wrong mix of sand and cement, he complains to the authorities. Apparently, a large construction in Rishakesh was redone after the contractors were caught cheating by the Swami.

His materials engineering skills don’t interfere with his regular swami activities. He taught me a few Vedic mantras on the way to the mountain temple. He was impressed with my Sanskrit pronunciation, which I had learned at the beginning of my trip at a chanting yoga retreat.

After driving for 5 hours, to get to the town with the nearby temple, we got out of the car, bought around 150 pounds of rice, potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, etc., and called the temple priest to send down people to carry the food up the 3.5 km switch backed, gravel, rock, and tree root covered, steep path. I only had to carry myself and my purse. The taxi driver carried my sleeping bag and knapsack, along with his own stuff. As I looked up, and reminded my dear friend and tour guide that there was a reason I brought a cane with me, and that there was a difference between 3.5 km horizontal and 3.5 km vertical, he assured me it wasn’t strictly vertical. I made it. Slowly. The Swami beat me. Easily. Here’s the view from the “guest house,” at the 3.5 km mark. A mere half km from the top of the mountain, where the actual temple is. It was worth it.

Hopefully there will be a photo of the guest house itself in a later post, but for now I will say that we took the room that did not smell like burned plastic. The rest of the amenities? A concrete floor and a metal door, and two small windows with metal shutters. They were nice. They gave the spoiled American 3 extra blankets.

The resident priest made dinner for us. The most delicious dahl (spiced lentils) I have ever had. Dharmendra claimed it was because it was cooked on a wood fire. Despite the hot meal, I had never really warmed up after breaking into a sweat on the hike up. The mountain air was cold.

“No, Dharmendra,” I said. “Narendra (our driver) is not sleeping in a different room. He’s sleeping with us, to add his hot breath and heat radiations to the three of us.”

I asked if I had been snoring when we all woke up, and an affirmative answer let me realize that I did probably sleep for a few hours. Morning light at 7 meant time for me to eat the chapati that the priest had made specially for me so I could take my pain meds before walking up the last half km to the temple.

The last part of the climb to a mountain temple is reliably steeper than the rest. Getting to a mountain top temple is most of the prayer. As one of my companions on the earlier part of the trip, the yoga retreat, said, “The Indians With Disabilities Act has two words: Tough Shit.”

But with the cane, I made it. And the Swami performed the healing ritual for my mom. It turns out that she started breathing on her own, right around that time.

Never underestimate the power of prayer, whether it is from your own tradition or not.

Ultimately, as I already knew would be the case, my mom did not survive. But because she was breathing on her own, they were able to remove the ventilator mask, and my dad got to see her face, and kiss her face, and that meant a lot to him at the time.

Seeing her face, he was able to see that “she” was gone from the physical shell that had housed his wife of 59.5 years. It was still hard to let her go, but I think easier than it would have been otherwise.

Back at the guest house, the priest and Dharmendra had a little disagreement. Turns out that the Swami really is considered a saint, and the priest did not think that we should pay if we brought the Swami with us to bless his facility. Dharmendra had to clandestinely leave the money to pay for our accommodations.

Back at the bottom of the trail, as we got in back in the car, Dharmendra told me “Now you realize you are stronger than you thought you were.”

Dharmendra at
http://www.exotic-himalayas.com/

Miraculously, my arthritis pain was greatly reduced the day I got off the plane in India. Still, after two years of severe inflammation, my fitness condition wasn’t great. Back in the US for a month now, the arthritis pain continues at a much lower level than it was before I left. Maybe this is part of why old people go south for the winter. And probably why this wasn’t my last trip to India, even though I had said before I left that it was my bucket trip.

It was supposed to be MY bucket trip, not my  mom’s.

 

 

 

 

 

Spiritually Attached to India

“She won’t like it here,” the good professor wrote. “Westerners never do. There’s no room service, and the food in the cafeteria is all South Indian style.”

“She’s spiritually attached to India. She speaks fluent Hindi. This isn’t her first trip. She’ll be fine.”

My soon to be friend Shankar nailed it. I had never thought about it in exactly those words though. I’m spiritually attached to India. It would be my third trip to the subcontinent. The fluent Hindi was a bit of an exaggeration. I had pretty darn good tourist Hindi, maybe a thousand words. Grammatical mistakes in most of my sentences, but I was usually understood, then corrected, proving that they understood what I was trying to say. (My most used sentence on the hair-raising ride on the 1.5 lane wide roads on the sides of the “foothills” of the Himalayas, was -after correction- Nicche na dekko!!- “Don’t look down!”

Scary Road on the way to Rudraprayag

 

sometimes followed by “But Look Down- it’s beautiful!”)

Shankar was correct, but he humored the professor, and asked me if I agreed that the accommodation planned, without room service, would be ok. I assured him that it would, and was very happy to have this new idea of spiritual attachment, and to have had someone who never met me in person realize it was true. I can’t really explain it; maybe I had a past life or three in India.

Really, my main concern about hotels in Asia is that the mattresses  are so hard. Difficult on my arthritic joints. But I had resolved to just take extra pain killer, when I needed it. This was my bucket trip. I was acting on my desire to teach a failure analysis class in India, before the onset of my ultimate, inevitable deterioration. The mattress at the University guesthouse was unlikely to be harder, I reasoned,  than the one at the rural Christian monastery where I was going to be spending the first week and a half in India on the upcoming trip. And the food was unlikely to be more difficult to enjoy than what the monks and nuns ate. And anyway, I had just returned from Japan, where I became convinced that the more expensive the hotel, the harder the mattress.

If I really hated sambar, rasaam, and idly, I probably wouldn’t go to south India. But I had learned to eat, if not love, the first two items, spicy soups, back in the mid 1970’s, when my South Indian ex-boyfriend moved to a town near my parents, who really liked him more than any other boyfriend I had before or after, and proceeded to teach my mother how to do South Indian cooking. I learned to more or less enjoy idly, a somewhat bland lentil flour based sponge, used to sop up the sambar, on my first trip to India, where they served it at the Hindu monastery (ashram) that hosted the meditation retreat that I was attending in 2001.

So I just had to deal with the reality of the hospitality that my hosts, for what was becoming a four day speaking tour in Chennai, were able to provide. I had offered to teach a two day seminar, give a dinner talk to my fellow members of our international engineering society, and a lecture to the engineering students at the local university.  I ended up also giving a longer version of the dinner talk at two private companies, and another presentation to some eleventh graders, entitled “Is a Career in Materials Engineering Right for Me?” I wasn’t charging a speaking or teaching fee, but I thought it was reasonable to ask them to cover my expenses for the four days that I’d be visiting them. They agreed, but were concerned about the budget. It all worked out. I was back to normal food after buying myself four days of temptations at the Radisson Blu buffets.

Back home after a month in India, I feel more spiritually attached to the people and place than ever. After twenty years of trying to get traction exploring new ideas of how engineers can embrace critical and creative thinking, or what I’ve started to call “cultivating clarity,” I am lucky to have developed a small group of local, American people, who appreciate my creative approach to critical thinking. But each of the two Indian companies that invited me to the give the “Thinking Skill Optimization” talk had 85+ people attend. And they participated. And their managers thanked me in unique ways that allowed me to see that they were also paying attention. My new friend Prasad told me “You have gotten pretty close to giving a method for developing intuition.”

Yes, that’s right. And it was very interesting to me that someone who lives in the land of the longest lasting collective consciousness, the very source of intuition, understood that to be a major part of my approach. Of course many engineers would not be attracted to a class on developing their intuition, and even if they were, I imagine they’d have a hard time convincing their bosses to cover the costs to attend. It sure is useful to have a way to calibrate intuition though. When effective, it’s a lot faster and easier than calculations and analysis.

Thinking about it further, I am just realizing how unusual it was that both managers attended the training with their employees. How often does that happen in the USA? Most American managers think that the only thing they need to know how to do is balance a budget.

I think there is more to the success of the contribution of Indian industry to the global economy than low wages.